By Ty Cobb* —
The U.S. is running as fast as it can from the defining strategy and focus of the last decade—fighting counter-insurgencies and engaging in nation-building. The new leitmotif the Defense Department is embracing is the “Air-Sea Battle,” with an unmistakable laser on China, the development of regional alliances to “contain” the PRC, and a stress on naval and air strike capabilities. The Department appears to be putting “COIN” in the rear-view mirror quickly, even with some 100,000 troops still deployed in combating insurgencies in the volatile Mid-East.
The shift in DOD’s strategic emphasis was clearly laid out recently in a major speech given by the Vice-Chairman of the JCS, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld. According to the Vice, the military is moving past COIN at a rapid velocity and must now plan for a new threat environment that will be centered in Eastern Asia and the Western Pacific. “We are not likely to have as our next fight a counterinsurgency,” the Admiral said. This means that while for the past decade we have been training troops in fighting insurgencies on land, assisting the troops in learning Arabic, securing villages and winning friends by drinking “Three Cups of Tea,” the “world has changed,” Winnefeld stated.
Future conflicts will likely occur in “a far more technically challenging environment.” The fight will be much closer to a conventional military conflict characterized by “intense electronic warfighting,” swarm attacks and cyber warfare. America’s enemies are coming up with “new asymmetric advantages,” with electronic warfare at the forefront. National borders will mean little as it will be difficult to ascertain origins of these attacks—for espionage, to cripple our commercial networks, or to neutralize our ISR systems, Winnefeld pointed out.
No more population-centric counter insurgencies. However, military force will still be a core aspect of the new mode of conflict. Special Forces type units and stand-off systems such as drones will be increasingly employed (Biden strategy for Afghanistan wins?), as will very mobile strike forces. The center of the force of the future will very much be air and naval as embodied in the emerging “AirSea Battle” doctrine.
China the Obvious Focus
While it is not explicitly stated, the obvious target of U.S. maneuvering and strategic realigning is what is perceived as the growing threat represented by increasing Chinese assertiveness and power. Indeed, “China bashing” seems to be widespread. Not that the PRC’s actions are without legitimate concern. China is involved heavily in cyber-espionage directed at American security interests and intellectual property theft aimed at U.S. financial institutions. It manipulates its currency to assure that Beijing maintains a healthy balance of trade advantage, human rights violations are omnipresent, the vast use of coal is contributing to global environmental damage, and the country is guilty of “orbital littering.”
However, the primary concern is in the security realm. China has close relationships with nations that export terror or weapons to insurgent groups, particularly Iran and North Korea. The PRC has expanded its military capabilities, to include the development of a (primitive) aircraft carrier, anti-ship missiles, and a modernized submarine fleet. Beijing has been very vociferous in maintaining that it has the right to control much of the South China Sea, a policy line that has been somewhat muted this year but has sounded alarm bells in neighboring countries. In response, East Asian and Pacific Rim nations have been more critical about Chinese power and intentions in the region.
This was made quite explicit in the most recent report by U.S. counter-intelligence experts calling China out for being the world’s “most persistent and active perpetrator of economic espionage.” One Senator (Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse) calls this the “biggest transfer of wealth through theft and piracy in the history of mankind.” A Congressional task force, the China Economic and Security Review Commission, has cited increased Chinese aggressiveness against Japan on the high seas, PRC attempts to hack into U.S. satellites, disputes with the Philippines and Viet-Nam over territorial rights, and threats over American arms transfers to Taiwan.
The Launch of the AirSea Battle Concept and the Emergence of a China Containment Policy
The Air Force and the Navy are developing a new warfighting strategy called the “AirSea Battle.” While China is never explicitly mentioned, there is no doubt that the strategy is aimed at the conduct of a major conflict with the PRC. The U.S. has been seeking closer ties with China’s traditional and new adversaries, most importantly Viet-Nam, the Philippines, and now, even India and Burma! Yes, Burma—that nation moving toward reform and now being welcomed back into the club of nations.
The Pentagon has indicated that the emerging operational philosophy was aimed at the threat of “anti-intervention and regional obstruction,” which China is developing, including long-range precision strike ballistic missiles, advanced anti-air missile defense systems, advanced electronic warfare capabilities, and modernized submarines. The U.S. is rapidly developing better anti-submarine techniques to counter the growing Chinese capability, and new U.S. “allies” Viet-Nam and Malaysia are ordering, in turn, new submarines from Western defense firms.
The implementation of “AirSea Battle” will rely on closer ties with regional powers. The U.S. Navy is making more port visits to China’s neighbors, most strikingly to our former adversary, Viet-Nam, with whom we are developing strong defense ties. Ah, the irony of it all! The Pentagon announced that a Marine Expeditionary Force will be based in Darwin on the north coast of Australia. Not that anyone thinks a MEF would be all that effective against a conventional Chinese threat, but it serves both as a “trip wire” and as a base for possible rapid reinforcement for the Navy.
Most importantly, in President Obama’s recent trip to Asia that included two Summits and several key bilateral discussions, the thrust was clearly focused on “containing China.” Philippine presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang exclaimed at the recent Asian Summit in Bali that the “enhanced U.S. presence bolsters our ability to assert our sovereignty over certain areas.” This year Viet-Nam signed its first defense cooperation agreement with the U.S. and the two navies have conducted joint exercises. India and Viet-Nam have expressed a desire to discuss trilateral cooperation in the South China Sea area, interesting given its distance from the subcontinent.
The upshot of this activity will be (1) American military strategy will be rapidly shifting away from the stress on COIN; (2) U.S. naval and air capabilities will get new emphasis for future defense acquisition programs; (3) The key role the Army has played in defense policy implementation will fade; (4) The U.S. will develop closer military ties with China’s neighbors, perhaps not formal alliances, but enhanced military cooperation; (5) The AirSea Battle doctrine and American diplomacy will be increasingly oriented on “Containing China.”
Image courtesy of the United States Government.
*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.